Souls Know No Borders: For Mexican-American author, the pain of life is a key to unity

click to enlarge Luis Alberto Urrea
Luis Alberto Urrea

By JILL WILSON

for Inland 360

Luis Alberto Urrea knows about borders. Born in Tijuana and raised in San Diego, his American mother wished for him to be more American than Mexican, and his Mexican father wished for him to be more Mexican than American. Split by culture and geography, yet unified by family, it may seem as though Urrea was raised between two worlds. To Urrea, however, all experiences are simply human and that commonality can be used to bridge conflict.

Encouraged by his mother to write and apply for school grants, Urrea was the first in his family to attend college. He is now an award-winning, bestselling author of 17 books of poetry, fiction and essays. His first book, 1993’s “Across the Wire,” was named a New York Times Notable Book and won a Christopher Award, which recognizes works that “affirm the highest values of the human spirit." He is a member of the Latino Literature Hall of Fame, a finalist for a 2005 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction and won an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature in 2017.

His latest novel, “House of Broken Angels,” is inspired by the real story of his older half-brother, Juan. It tells an intimate tale of an epic family which gathers for a final birthday bash honoring its dying patriarch, “Big Angel,” who is preparing himself to cross life’s last border. Urrea is this year’s Everybody Reads author and will visit the region for conversations about the book, beginning Tuesday. In anticipation of his visit, Inland 360 talked to him about his work in an email interview.

You have suffered great loss in your life and have written about loss through the characters in your book. Does writing about suffering so intimately change or heal your wounds? What happens to your soul when, instead of waiting for time to heal you, you write instead? 

Urrea: The first thing that happens is that it tears you open. It is a good test of your own bravery. But the second thing that happens is that you realize it is like lancing a wound and the light and the air heal it, somewhat. Your choice is to choose bitterness and self-pity or to choose gratitude and trust. Invariably, my career has been about reaching others, so yeah, I think it helps other people to deal with their own pain. They know they are not the only ones.

How did you deal with the emotional impact of writing something so intense?

Urrea: That's why so much of the book is so funny. Sometimes I could only write a little tiny bit. Sometimes I felt like my brother's spirit was in the room, urging me on. Sometimes I crumbled, and my wife typed for me. The more I wrote and rewrote the words, the more it became a piece of literature rather than pure catharsis. My job is not to whine about my pain. My job is to reach out to other people in all of the aspects that literature offers; it's not just a book about pain, it's a book about all of life's celebrations and joy.

What was your favorite childhood book or poem?

Urrea: I'd say my all-time favorite childhood books were “The Jungle Books.” I WAS Mowgli! But, I was also a fanatic for the Saturday afternoon monster movies, so I must confess a close second was Andre Norton's (novel) “Storm Over Warlock,” in which a young man with two psychic wolverines and a pet hawk fought a one-man war against the giant ant-man space invaders.

When did you realize that language had power?

Urrea: From the very beginning. From the relentless culture/language war between my American mom and my Mexican dad. When I listened to the hypnotic music of all the stories being told around me and started very late to differentiate between Spanish and English.

Do you have any interesting writing quirks?

Urrea: Loud music. Too much coffee. Tiny dog sleeping in one of my old sweatshirts on the floor by my feet.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

Urrea: Look, this book is a Mexican “Finnegan's Wake.” I have had every ethnicity imaginable tell me, "This is just like MY family because ..." That's what I want. I want families to realize on some level you can find commonality with someone else's family. We are all together. It is about the soul's journey. It's about grace.

360: What do you think about Trump’s border wall?

Urrea: You can probably guess everything I would say.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: Everybody Reads author Luis Alberto Urrea.

COST: Free.

WHEN and WHERE:

Tuesday, Nov. 12

Noon, Artisans at the Dahmen Barn, Uniontown.

7 p.m., Nezperce Community Library, Nezperce.

Wednesday, Nov. 13

Noon Wednesday, Basalt Cellars, 906 Port Drive, Clarkston (organized by Asotin County Library).

7 p.m., Lewiston City Library.

Thursday, Nov. 14

Noon, Whitman County Library, Colfax (RSVP if you would like lunch).

7 p.m., Neill Public Library, Pullman.

Friday, Nov. 15

Noon, Holland Library, Washington State University, Pullman.

7 p.m., 1912 Center, Moscow (organized by the Latah County Library).

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